Strange to say, but we spent most of our childhood at this dry cleaners. Your family owned it, and after school we’d walk straight there without ever discussing it. Dutifully finishing our homework in the back and then chasing each other through the rotating racks of clothes, feeling the thin plastic covers kiss our foreheads. Later, when we were fledgling teenagers, hoping we could get high for cheap just breathing in all those chemical solvents.
When you turned seventeen your dad put you behind the counter; he had lost his magical ability to match clothing to people, and in any event he could no longer match names to faces. Devastating in his line of business. People thought the job would make you dangerous, that extra cash would turn you wild, moreso than you already were. Only I knew that all the money went straight to your family, that you never touched a dime of it.
I used to bring you food in the afternoons, a care package to tide you over at the moment when the day turned and hours of customer service made you wretched. On one of these days, I saw you outside yelling at a regular for shorting you five dollars. He pulled a polaroid camera out, softly saying that he was a photographer, that he’d take a photo of you – when I walked up, your friend – and that while this wasn’t five dollars, maybe, today, it would be enough.
Your face softened a bit, and you agreed. I knew you were thinking we had no photos of us at the place that dominated our daily existence even more than our homes. We both tried to look casual, but it’s clear I took a sip of soda just as he pressed the button. Years later, after I moved away and you got cancer, I was back in the neighborhood and found your daughter at the counter. Just above her head, taped right next to the framed dollar bill from your parent’s first sale, was this photograph.
Story by Nina Sudhakar